November 13, 2017

THE RADICAL CENTER | The Perils of Speculation

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When George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. a couple weeks ago, those of us in the thrall of the mainstream media thought it big news.

Papadopoulos, formerly an adviser for Donald Trump’s campaign, took meetings with Kremlin-connected Russians promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of pilfered emails. These revelations came courtesy of Robert Mueller, the hawkish former F.B.I. chief investigating possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia (commonly called “collusion”). Following his appointment in May, Mueller received bipartisan plaudits for his honesty and integrity. So Papadopoulos’ guilty plea is just Mueller doing his job, right?

Enter the Wall Street Journal editorial board’s topsy-turvy world. They have published editorial after editorial calling for Mueller to step down. Further, they believe there is demonstrable proof that Clinton is at the center of her own Russia-collusion scandal.

The Journal’s argument goes like this. The Clinton campaign paid Fusion GPS, an opposition research firm, to compile a dossier of compromising information on Trump. That dossier—some of which has been verified, and some of which has not—was created by a British spy who darted around Russia talking to anonymous sources from the Kremlin. From this, the editorial board concludes that Clinton paid for Russians to put together salacious allegations against Trump. In their words, “Did someone say ‘collusion’?”

As if that wasn’t speculative enough, the Journal also suspects the F.B.I. might have used the mentioned dossier as a basis for launching its inquiry into potential Trump-Russia connections. Working off that assumption, they envision a trifecta of potential collusion. The F.B.I. investigated Trump using the dossier funded by the Democrats, which was produced using Russian intelligence. At last we unearth the real scandal—not Trump-Russia but rather Democrat-F.B.I.-Russia. Ingenious, isn’t it?

The Journal thus demands an investigation into the emerging Democrat-F.B.I.-Russia scandal. And since Mueller used to lead the F.B.I., he “lacks the critical distance” needed to investigate the agency. He ought to resign to make room for someone without such conflicts of interest, they argue.

What intellectual sloppiness. The Journal’s whole argument is predicated on rampant speculation, cloaked in the false pretense of wanting a full investigation. They call into question the F.B.I.’s integrity, but in doing so substitute unfounded conjecture for evidence. Premised on their own speculation, the Journal then conjures up a fanciful conflict-of-interest story around Mueller’s proximity to the F.B.I. The editorial board forgets that Mueller’s inquiry is into Russian interference and the Trump campaign—not the F.B.I.

The Journal’s editorial was met with bipartisan backlash. Conservative intellectual Noah Rothman wrote in Commentary that the Journal’s “wildly speculative broadside” was a “reckless game with remarkably high stakes.” New York Times columnist and avowed progressive David Leonhardt coined it “The Dossier Freakout.” The editors of the conservative National Review—who are no fans of Mueller’s probe—noted, “there is nothing to suggest yet that Mueller is abusing his power.”

But the most telling response to the editorial board came from an esteemed reporter for none other than the Wall Street Journal, who tossed aside the board’s notion that the dossier could have triggered the Trump-Russia investigation (which, you’ll recall, is the basic assumption underlying the Journal’s call for Mueller to resign). Other reports are likewise dismissive.

That didn’t stop Fox News from having a field day. Sean Hannity, Fox’s original Trump admirer (pictured above), called for Mueller to resign over his conflicts of interest. Judge Jeanine Pirro, another headliner at Fox, demanded Mueller be fired, deeming his probe a “charade.” She also, most bravely, called for Clinton to be “locked up.” Déjà vu.

Needless to say, the anti-Mueller narrative is baseless. Mueller has run a professional investigation into a crucial matter of national security. After Trump fired the former F.B.I. director James Comey, the Justice Department, whether wisely or not, conferred to Mueller a broad legal mandate to dig into Russian election meddling and Trump-Russia coordination. He has operated within the bounds of this mandate. Press reports indicate that Mueller has a clear sense of his mission and does not seek to fell Trump. Considering the enormous interest in his investigation, Mueller has been impressively tight-lipped, minimizing leaks to the press. No information about Papadopoulos’ guilty plea had surfaced prior to Mueller’s report, for example.

But Fox News and the Journal editorial board—both owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch—concoct far-fetched counter-narratives all the time. What’s so different this time around?

The trouble here is deeper than just hare-brained media spin. If Trump fires Mueller without good reason, it would deal a chilling blow to the rule of law and separation of powers. It would show that no investigator, irrespective of integrity, may ever scrutinize the president or those around him. It would also surely spark a political inferno, immobilizing an already sluggish Congress.

In a more practical sense, Trump firing Mueller would endanger his own presidency. Trump would have to go through Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, to fire Mueller. But Rosenstein has said he won’t fire Mueller without “good cause.” So Trump would likely need to fire Rosenstein first before firing Mueller. It would then fall to congressional Republicans to intervene, as many have pledged to do already. Impeachment, long a liberal fever dream, might well come into play.

All this is highly improbable. Trump may not fire Mueller at all, realizing how disastrous doing so would be. But the speculation in which the Journal and Fox News are engaging creates the pretext for Mueller’s firing. It prepares Trump acolytes, as well as his less ardent supporters, to dismiss any charges of Trump abusing his power, which in turn makes it less likely that congressional Republicans will constrain Trump if he oversteps.

Washington political drama can seem far-off much of the time. There’s always some brewing calamity, some dire threat to democracy. That’s true—political types are certainly prone to hyperbole. But then again, it bears remembering that the erosion of democracy occurs in small steps, not in leaps and bounds.